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Instant irresistibility: How to make small talk and advanced social skills

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How to Make Small Talk: a crash course on subtle social hacks and advanced techniques for improving your social skills.
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I did not want to hit on this woman.

But my friend noticed her checking me out, so he glanced at me and raised his eyebrows. I looked at him, silently saying, “Really? Do I have to?” He just tilted his head and raised his eyebrows even higher. Nothing more needed to be said — every guy knows what that look means. We can’t back down from a challenge in front of our friends, so I sighed and walked over to her.

Keep in mind this woman was a lot older than me, not really my type, and I hate approaching at bars. But among men, pride comes first. Plus, she seemed nice.

Ramit: “Hi, I’m Ramit.”
Woman: “Hi, I’m (whatever).
Ramit: “You look like a vodka soda kind of girl” (I know, I know. I don’t know where this horrific line came from)
Woman: “NO!!”

I was a little surprised at how aggressively she said no, so I decided to have some fun.

Ramit: “Aw come on, I’ve been right 100/100 times for the last 5 years. How are you gonna break my streak like that?”
Woman: “I’m a recovering alcoholic.”

Teaches social skills. Hits on recovering alcoholic at bar.

Shortest bar conversation ever. Possibly the worst. But also hilarious.

On Friday, I asked you to talk to ONE random person and write down what happened. Over 800 of you left comments sharing your hilarious, inspiring, and sometimes horrific stories. If you’re on my email list, you got a special email with my 10 favorite comments yesterday.

How to make small talk and other advanced social skills

Today, I want to take you to the next level by giving you even more advanced material — plus another challenge.

Here’s what I created for you today:

  • “Small Talk” Hacks —  A 30-minute video crash course where I’ll show you subtle social hacks and advanced techniques for improving your social skills. I’ve never released this before.
  • New material on the invisible costs of having average social skills

Now let me show you what happens on the other end of the spectrum — when you eliminate catastrophes like me being forced to hit on a recovering alcoholic at a bar (??).

NEW: I got so many responses that I wrote a huge free guide on improving your social skills that goes into even more detail on the strategies described here.
Download “The Ultimate Guide to Social Skills: The Art of Talking to Anyone” now.


Instant Irresistibility: What “A+” social skills mean

I have a friend who’s an actress. We were talking about how she’d gone on a bunch of dates and the guys always fell in love with her. They had an instant rapport with her and felt the connection was incredibly deep after meeting her for an hour.

What they failed to understand was that she’s so socially skilled, she’s able to evoke this feeling of awe in most people she interacts with. She’s being totally transparent and ethical, but her social skills are so advanced that they bring out the best version of herself — making her almost irresistible.

In other words, having finely honed social skills is like taking a machine gun to a swordfight — FOR LIFE.

When you’re armed with amazing social skills, you can go to a party with no alcohol, only knowing 1 or 2 people… and still engage with ANYONE there. You can walk into an interview completely comfortable and nail tough question after tough question. You can contribute ideas in work meetings and know you’ll be taken seriously (and not talked over). When you walk into your boss’s office for a raise, you’re calm and confident instead of nervously wavering and turning into a puddle of goo. Improving your social skills can truly be your most valuable skill.

And that’s what social skills are: skills that can be systematically improved.

The compounding power of advanced social skills

I love hearing people complain, “Ugh, it’s not WHAT you know, it’s WHO you know.” Then they sit back in their chairs, eat another donut, and never take the time to figure how out how to IMPROVE THEIR SOCIAL SKILLS AND MEET MORE INFLUENTIAL PEOPLE! You, my jackass friend, are a whiny loser who expects the world to work the way YOU want it to — instead of responding to the way it ACTUALLY works.

If you’re an IWT reader, you live in a world of what IS, not what SHOULD be.

That means recognizing these classic barriers people make about improving their social skills.

  • “Ugh, I don’t want to be one of those douchebags and start changing the way I dress and how I talk. They should like me for who I am.” Ironically, the people who use this excuse do not want to change, yet are often highly judgmental themselves.
  • “If I just work hard, they’ll recognize me.” This old chestnut has been said by many an Excel expert who sat in the corner, patiently creating pivot table after pivot table, only to see the loud/salesy guy get promoted, leading them to bitterly complain about “asshole marketing guys.” See Five Geek Social Fallacies. They never understand the game being played around them.
  • “I just need to get more experience before I (ask for a raise / ask for a promotion / try to get that Dream Job).” More experience might help, but as your career advances, improving your social skills is almost certainly worth more than technical talent alone.

The truth is, talent alone isn’t enough. It matters, but social skills become increasingly important — and sometimes are worth more than technical skills altogether! For example, I’ve hired people who weren’t the best at their technical skill…but they had excellent communication skills.

Elite college admission committees know this.

So does your boss.

Improving your social skills means being able to instantly “read” someone and communicate in the BEST possible way — including knowing how much detail to add, using amusing stories from your “Story Toolbox”, and comfortably sharing the very best version of yourself.

Ever notice a celebrity on The Daily Show or Conan? They don’t just come up with those stories on the fly. They’re tested, refined, and used only when they’re perfect. Much like Chris Rock practices his jokes until they’re flawless.

And as you get better at your social skills, you get more and more opportunities to practice them at higher and higher levels — getting invited to more social events, the pivotal conversation with your boss’s boss, the attractive guy you finally got the courage to talk to.

In other words, as your social skills improve, they get increasingly better, faster. They compound, making them one of your most powerful assets that can never be stripped away.

The invisible costs of poor social skills

But what happens if your social skills are just average?

Sometimes, it seems the people who don’t recognize the importance of social skills are the people who need it MOST:

She’ll never know what she missed.

How many of us go through this every day? The scary thing is, we’ll never know what we missed out on because of poor social skills. Those opportunities simply cease to exist.

For example…

  • We don’t talk to that girl at the bar, then kick ourselves later. Add this up over years and we end up getting our “second pick” of partners — not the ones we WANT, but the ones who are convenient or left over.
  • We stagnate in making new friends, since it’s hard to meet real friends after college. Especially if you’re not going out a lot.
  • We might be technically very skilled, but we bomb the interview, or get passed over for a promotion, or we’re not in the “inner circle” of people at work whom the boss favors.

There are even more haunting examples of the consequences of having mediocre social skills:

  • I have friends who thought earning enough would be enough to attract a partner. They’ve spent the last 5-10 years on their career, but never took the time to learn how to talk to men and women on a personal level. (A lot of Indian people are like this, actually.) Now what? They’ve got great jobs and lots of money in the bank, but they’re missing a core skill — and as a result, the pool of potential high-caliber partners is way smaller than for someone else.
  • One of my friends runs a successful tech company and was considering acquiring a small 1-man company. After a night of drinking, he asked me what I thought of the guy. He’s a good friend so I told him the brutal truth: I told him that the guy was way too cocky for his experience, I wouldn’t want him on my team, and I told him exactly why. My friend canceled the acquisition the next day. That guy will never know that his social skills cost him a 7-figure payday.

What do all these missed opportunities add up to over 10 years? 30 years?

If you learned even ONE technique to improve your social skills — something you can use every day while talking to co-workers, men, women, even random people on the street — what would that be worth?

Introducing My “Small Talk” Hacks Video

I created a new video for you, a 30-minute crash course on improving your social skills. I didn’t want to just offer you one or two random “tips.” I wanted to go deeper.

The video includes easy scripts for starting a conversation, keeping it going, and politely ending conversations (even with ramblers). I also included a live social-skills teardown about how to make small talk, plus the powerful concept of the Story Toolbox.

1:28   – Watch as I analyze my latest national TV appearance, beat-by-beat
4:07   – The social skills mistakes I used to make
5:44   – How do you start a conversation with a stranger?
8:20   – How do you keep the conversation going?
13:47 – How do you end a conversation politely?
16:57 – Your Story Toolbox: How can make yourself memorable?
20:50 – How do you make small talk?
25:03 – How to win an all-expenses paid trip to NYC for social-skills training (a $5,000 value)

TO DO TODAY

In the video at 16:57, I described the Story Toolbox, a Dream Job concept that lets you walk into any interaction — a job interview, bar, or cocktail party — and instantly have 5-10 stories to use at any given moment.

Top performers know that by having these stories ready to use — stories that consistently get positive reactions — they can instantly connect with anyone.

Today, I want you to start building your Story Toolbox.

Here’s your challenge:

  1. Brainstorm ONE engaging story (like my story about the recovering alcoholic at the bar), then test it on 1 person — a friend, family member, coworker, even a stranger.
  1. In the comments below, share the story (just an excerpt) and the reaction you got. It’s OK to get a negative reaction! Share whatever you find below.

Sign up for my email list so I can hold you accountable to take action.

 

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658 Comments

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  1. My biggest weakness when it comes to social skills is knowing what to say. I wish rambling were my problem. Before I ever meet with someone new or someone who makes me nervous, I always have a mini-pep talk with myself, telling myself to try saying X, if not, try Y. I also daydream about how I want to sound and look. Then I wonder why can’t I just be natural like everyone else seems to be?

    For example, I went to an event a few months ago. I decided to summon my courage and strike up a conversation with a simple question: “What brings you to this place?” The older guy responded, “The same thing as everyone else here.” I managed to stammer a random follow-up line. It went on for a while before it petered out, and I missed opportunities to speak with others. I’m still not sure whether he was the awkward one or me.

    One thing that did help was to come up with a few topics of conversation when I went out with a female friend. Knowing I would be spending hours with her, I felt I needed something to go off of in case it’s too awkward. Whenever I wanted to introduce a new topic, I would remember one of the items (which were written down in a note in my pocket that I consulted while she was in the bathroom). It worked well, and I don’t remember any awkwardness. I’m fairly sure it would have been less interesting without planned conversations, but my friend recommended that I just go for it naturally. I am not someone who can think quickly on his feet. Should conversations be free-flowing or scripted? Perhaps free-flowing with scripted points of conversation? Seems like interviews are rooted in basic social skills (lucky me).

    Then there was the phone interview I botched because I was plain nervous. I had some things ready to say, but the interview did not head in that direction. In retrospect, I could have guided the conversation that way, but not being able to see the other party made it difficult to follow cues.

    The takeaway from my three stories here is that having premeditated topics before having the conversation will help, but only if I can use them. I may be nervous, or the other person may have an unexpected response, but I suppose those are avenues for me to remember not to use in the future. Among my weaknesses, this would still be my biggest one because I’ve been sitting here wondering what I’m going to say at the lunch I promised with another female friend that I want to catch up with.

  2. Seeing superior social skills in action can be an awesome experience. Literally, as in you can be awestruck.

    In sixth grade I had a classmate who was wildly popular and seemed (to me) to fun with a fast crowd. She was completely on the opposite corner of the classroom (she sat front right, I sat back left) and I never had an opportunity to talk with her that year (besides I couldn’t imagine we had anything in common), so I didn’t actually know her at all.

    Then I moved away but returned to the town occasionally as I still had relatives there. A couple years later I’m back there on Thanksgiving weekend and decide to take a short walk before dinner.

    I run into a friend, Luann comes by,, a fourth kid joins us. We’re all participating in the conversation but the attention is all on Luann.

    She melted me inside twice in five minutes without directly talking to me – she was talking to all of us – which was a good thing because (as far as I observed) nobody else noticed what I was experiencing. Nobody else has ever had that kind of effect on me but it was a really WOW experience and if you’ve ever experienced it you want to learn how to become a people magnet.

    • Terrific example, RB — almost all of us have been in this scenario at least once. The power of meeting someone with outstanding social skills is a truly awesome experience. Best of all, most of us can dramatically improve our own skills with some practice.

  3. Biggest weakness: Liking my own company too much. Often I’m happy being by myself, so don’t bother to start talking to people and then when I feel like talking to some one, I’ve made no connections so there is no one to talk to.

    When I’m telling stories, I nearly always end up telling stories about other people as I’ve had too many negative reactions when talking about things I’ve done (really mostly maths, I at least have enough sense not to talk about coding). Was talking to a friend of friend who was the liberal arts going to work for a non-profit and do volunteering with elephants on the side type. She asked what I was doing for my PhD, I said I was in operations research, which mostly looks at business processes, how to optimise them etc. and gave an example of how it can be used in manufacturing. She changed the conversation to her elephant volunteering.

    (I’m now much better at this sort of question thanks to the three minute thesis competition, see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wjnFfcrkuUk)

  4. Theodore Glave Link to this comment

    My biggest issue lately is seeming like a ‘know it all.’ When I was in college, I never got a chance to read things I was really interested in because I was always so busy (invisible script…I know better now). But since, I started working I’ve really been engaging in more of my interests and reading widely and a lot more. The down side of that has been that a lot of my conversations now start with, “well this one book I was reading talks about that…” Or, this blog IWT, I’ve been reading it a lot lately it talks about x, y, z. I want to get away from that or do it in a more socially acceptable way. I feel like I come off as knowing all answers to all situations, which isn’t true, I’m just a little overly excited when I see the things I read about happen in real life. I didn’t even realize I was doing this until two of my friends pointed it out. So my issue is speaking about interesting things without being “that guy.”

    • Christian K.N. Link to this comment

      I do this too. It seems to help, however, if I don’t always back up my statements with sources. People’s eyes will glaze over if I say, “Ramit Sethi makes a point in his book, that a, b and c.”, but if I just pass a, b and c as facts they’ll listen intently. The same goes for advice; in smalltalk, people will only listen if it comes from me, not from some book I’ve read. It probably has to do with the confidence of taking ownership of what I say, and realizing that smalltalk is all about form, not substance. (If they’re really interested, you can send them the curriculum later 😉 )

    • I have this same problem– I like Christian’s response. I’m going to give it a try. I get so excited about the stuff I’m learning that I love to share it with people who show interest….I’m always backing it up with the source. I didn’t realize that it comes across as not having confidence….but that completely makes sense because I’m actually naming the source so I *don’t* appear to be a ‘know-it-all’….hmmm

  5. I know that my biggest weakness in my social skills is not what I have to say, but my self-confidence about myself, which is basically the invisible scripts that I tell myself about how I am incompetent and why I couldn’t get the other person to be interested in what I have to say. Conversation, while having these invisible scripts has produce many many awkward moments in my life and thinking about them still gives me that sick feeling in the stomach.

    After watching the video from this post, I can actually get answers to why some of my social interactions went from normal to awkward at the end, here’s my story

    I remember once when I try striking up a conversation with someone in a party, a very pretty lady. I introduced myself to her and asked a lot of questions, which includes my name, where I go to school, what my major is, what I learned from college, what my part time job is (talking too much about myself), and I was also making a mistake of asking too much questions, making the whole conversation like an interview. I notice that after all these yes/no questions I asked, her body language changed from facing towards me to slowly away from me with one of her foot pointing side ways, which gave me that gnawing feeling that I did not know before I took the time to understand social interactions.
    The bottom line of the story is, external skills like asking the right questions and story telling can improve your social skills a lot, but the most important thing is the invisible scripts that I have made for myself, which is to become the guy who own and command these skills, like a skilled hunter with his rifle and tools.

    I did however, made a very big improvement by dressing better. I notice that after taking the time to improve my appearance, my internal scripts were different, I tell myself that I’m looking good and people also picked up on that and even gave me comments about how different I behave by simply dressing a bit cooler than usual. I’m not saying that external appearance is the most important aspects of social interactions, but that it does help change how you feel about yourself, in a positive manner. People start listening to what I have to say and I was using the same skills that I was always using, but has immediate observable results.

    One last thing Ramit, I notice that a lot of your skills seem to be similar to that of pick up artists from years ago, hahaha, not trying to be disrespectful in any way, but they just sound awfully familiar with things like “improving your game”, “fake it till you make it” and becoming the man that command all the “can-openers” rather than memorizing the pickup lines and try hard to be “cocky and funny”. (I’m probably saying too much, please don’t kill me Ramit)

    • Good point. I suspect that woman wasn’t into you because (1) you were interviewing her with a barrage of 50 questions, and (2) she’s been asked those same questions over 1,000 times. You’ll learn how to be original.

      Btw, yes, I have studied the pickup world. It’s similar to how I studied the dark side of direct-response copywriting — I want to understand it all so I can extract the best parts for you.

  6. One thing I have difficulty doing is telling stories without sounding like Hansel from Zoolander “So there I am, rappelling down Mt Vesuvius…”

    I’m blessed to have had some great experiences in my life but I don’t want to come across as someone who brags about their exploits. I hate that guy. I’m not that guy.

    So rather then risk coming across as “full of himself,” I can overcompensate and end up acting quite sheepish. I only tell stories in context of course, but if someone is say, sharing a travelling story I’m conscious about “one-upping” that person and try to avoid that. One technique I’ve used if I find myself in that one-upping situation is I try and quickly bring the attention back to their story and talk about how they felt during their experience and make it more about how I can relate to them because I had a similar experience rather than turn it into some kind of pissing contest.

    The dynamic changes again if there are more people in the conversation. For example, if a guy is clearly trying to impress a girl, I’m not going to jump in with a story. I’m happily married, let the guy have his moment, no reason to be a dick about it – I’m not competing for her attention.

    I’m not naturally social; I have a very analytical, introverted mind.

    I used to really struggle with social skills, but one weird thing really helped me years ago, was people watching while hallucinating. In that state, peoples’ facial features and body language seemed highly emphasised – like caricatures. The smallest smile, raise of an eyebrow, placement of the body and the hands I could pick up a mile away. I never consciously recognised these things before, but they now seem very obvious and I pick up on it much more easily. This happened several years ago, and it is one experience that I can point to as making me take an interest in how people interacted, rather than dismissing social nuance as ‘trivial’ or ‘unimportant’ as I did previously. Its the first time I really noticed the social game being played around me.

    I would recommend people go people watching (mind-bending drugs optional!) and really focus on the small things; Ramit touched on this in his video when he talks about overhearing couples on dates. It is a small tip, but was a game changer for me.

    • I am one of those passive people that leans on the other person to carry the conversation. In the last year, I’ve really worked on starting conversations and I can now fairly easily start a conversation. Maintaining it is a completely different story. Ramit, you would be screaming at me like you do that people in the coffee shop. They end up going something like this:
      Me: “Hi, I’m Kim. Nice to meet you.”
      John: “Hi, I’m John.”
      Me: “So are you here for the XXXXX conference?” (Stupid question as that’s the only reason to be at the mixer.)
      John: “Yes, I’m a contractor.”
      Me: “Really, what area do you cover?” (Another stupid question as it’s on the name tag half the time.)
      John: “I cover Maryland and Delaware for your company. What do you do?”
      Me: “I’m a trainer. I teach the new employees on the processes.”
      John: “So you’re how I should contact when….. Ha!”
      Me: “Ummmm sure…”
      *AWKWARD PAUSE*

      The worst thing about awkward pauses that they are so hard to get out of or to end the conversation once they happen.

      I really think that this is what has been holding me back at work from the promotion or raise. (That and I just discovered your blog last week.I have a folder of accomplishments now and have been filling it up!)

  7. Great post, but…what is a recovering alcoholic doing in a bar?!!

    • God forbid that a recovering alcoholic hang out where everyone else is!

    • She’s probably trying to meet people and improve her social skills. Or she’s trying to meet cool guys like Ramit.

    • Dancing thats what I do. I dont drink I drive. Am I being a know it all? lol

    • K, recovering alcoholic in a bar for social reasons, I can buy that… but if you’re in control enough to be at a bar, be in control enough to be cool about it when someone brings up alcohol at an effing bar. How about “no thanks, I don’t drink”?

      She needs to work on her small talk skills.

    • Ramit I think she was trying to have fun with you and took it seriously! 😀

  8. It is hard to pinpoint my biggest flaw. Not because I don’t have one but because on any given day in any given situation it may change. I have had days where I can walk into a party alone where I sort of know the host, and be a hit and make a bunch of new friends. I leave feeling confident and fun, feeling like I gained a new experience. I have been invited to trips to Oregon, Belize, Texas and Colorado from this openness. But other times I can even be out with a group of 20 friends who I am close with and feel like a social freak, I stumble on my words and feel myself not knowing what to say or how to engage my own friends! If that isn’t a problem I’m not sure what is.

  9. My biggest social skill weakness is being passive. I tend to get stuck talking to time-monopolizers and miss out on talking to other people I really want to meet. When I do find myself chatting with an interesting person, I’m very bad at redirecting the conversation with my own questions and comments –and the more I like the person I’m talking to, the less inclined I am to steer the conversation, out of (irrational) fear that I’ll come off as uninterested in what the person is saying, or that I’ll interfere with the next thing that person might want to say.

  10. Nathan Straathof Link to this comment

    My Biggest Social Weakness: Reading the person I am conversing with. I’m struggling to know if they enjoy the topic we are discussing, or if they are wishing to change topics. For example, I’ll continue to ask follow up questions, they’ll continue to answer my questions, but nothing more. So it’s like I’m pulling teeth. Are they wishing I’d stop or are they just super terrible at having a conversation?

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